Reading and Translating Theatre

Reading and Translating Theatre

by Kotryna Garanasvili

Ivaškevičius’ versatility indicates another thing about reading theatre and the important function it performs. What reading theatre does is put us in a confrontation with the literary quality of the script, which might get overshadowed if not lost among all the immersive elements of a performance. On the page, the language is placed in plain sight, allowing us to fully take it in – all the subtle sentence structures, puns and the elegant flow of language, all the nuances that might otherwise get unnoticed, and that are worth noticing. Not only to appreciate them, but also to see the play from a different angle and direct our own versions of it.

While translating a Lithuanian play by Marius Ivaškevičius, Mistras (The Master, 2010), I had to write down ideas that kept coming and that I originally thought would make a short note, sort of Translating Mistras: how it was done and why. However, it soon became clear that something like Translating Theatre and Reading it: how it is done and why might be a more apt title, as I was led to more universal and general issues than one individual case of translation could contain. More than anything, it has taken on questions I’ve been faced with a lot recently – do we publish plays, and how do we translate them if we do? Translating theatre is, after all, unlike anything else. It inevitably goes back to the way we read theatre.

Confession: I’m one of the people who read play scripts for fun. My first experience with Shakespeare was not seeing it on stage but reading, very early in childhood, the script of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (and only then seeing it on stage). What I loved about it was the arrangement of the text – the clarity. All the characters clearly indicated, the setting and the action always explained, and the dialogue focused. It’s literally impossible to miss anything. In the most basic sense, I loved always being sure of who says what.

Also, the structure. First, the setting is described. Only then does anyone say anything, making the plot unfold. In most cases, the descriptions will be detailed enough so that you’re absolutely sure just where you’re finding yourself. How much more structural can it get?

This structure offers an aesthetic quality of its own – to say nothing of the dialogue, it can be found in the stage directions, too. For instance, stage directions written by William Somerset Maugham, or Henrik Ibsen, or Eugene O’Neill are not quick hints for performers but elaborate accounts, offering rich imagery and great attention to detail. O’Neill’s lengthy descriptions can take a great deal of time to get through, and they read much like a novel. It wouldn’t take too much effort to convert it into an actual novel, on the spot, by simply filling the spaces between the lines of dialogue with some more description.

Another thing is autonomy: whatever the director chooses to do with the play, the text remains intact. The interpretations can be countless, but there’s one that remains the same. The script provides the reader with a chance to create their own version of the text; it’s highly personal. Of course, there’s improv theatre that doesn’t contain written text at all. Unless it’s written afterwards: but then it’s a post-event-write-up, not a pre-written text. This applies to plays that change considerably from their original form, inspired by many performances. While teaching Reading Now, a module on contemporary literature at UEA recently, I’ve been working on Innua Ellams’ The Barbershop Chronicles, and my students caught on to this during one of the discussions – it turned out we had copies of different versions of the play.

In any case, reading the script allows you to look back to what inspired those changes, and what was the original material. You get a structure of what’s been intended which you can compare to what’s been shown on stage – sort of a blueprint that helps you appreciate what a director has done – and come up with your own interpretation of it. The playwright leaves a trail of hints, and we go on to interpret those hints. At the same time, it’s so much more – it functions as an artistic work in its own right. 

Translating Mistras by Marius Ivaškevičius has been special right from the start. First, I didn’t translate it to be performed – it was to be published in a journal (a shorter piece, published in Asymptote in 2021), and also for the Lithuanian Culture Institute whose translation grant it won in 2020 (a longer piece). In any case, this translation has been meant to be read.

Inventive, adventurous, and heavy with historical detail, Mistras takes place in Paris after the Napoleonic wars, revolving around the renowned Lithuanian-born Polish writer Adam Mickiewicz and his circle of friends, with George Sand, Honoré de Balzac, Frédéric Chopin, Pierre Leroux and Margaret Fuller among them. They are all staying in Paris – troubled by their past, unsure about their future and each dealing with their own personal crises – and meeting regularly to discuss politics and art. Then, in December 1840, a mysterious and charismatic figure enters their lives – a Lithuanian nobleman Andrzej Towiański who calls himself Mistras – the Master – and claims to be a messianic prophet.

This play was famously, and remarkably, staged at Vilnius State Small Theatre in 2010 by Rimas Tuminas, the iconic Lithuanian theatre director. Previously, I’d seen plays written by Ivaškevičius and plays directed by Tuminas, and plays written by Ivaškevičius and directed by Tuminas. I’ve also read plays by Ivaškevičius and haven’t seen their stage adaptations, if, for instance, they weren’t available at the time. In any case, I knew the way Ivaškevičius sounds on paper and the way he transfers to stage.

Mistras by Marius Ivaškevičius,
directed by Rimas Tuminas, Vilnius State Small Theatre

Fortunately, I hadn’t seen Mistras before reading it (I read it in a beautiful volume published by Tyto Alba in 2010 with a cover designed by Asta Puikienė). This made the first experience of reading it purely my own. It wasn’t yet influenced by the stage version, so I could see and hear the characters based on the plain text, creating the big picture from the clues left by the author – and creating my own version.

At the same time, I was reading as a translator. Reading as a translator is something else than regular reading. I made mental notes (then mental pencil notes and then actual pencil notes) of how it would sound in English, if the jokes converted easily or needed to be reworked, if there were any striking cultural references that needed to be preserved. I immediately decided that a particular reference – let’s call it the Books wake us reference – needed a footnote. It’s a playful interaction between Lithuanian and English: the main idea is that the phrase Books wake us is pronounced in the same way as the Lithuanian saying Būk sveikas, which is a classic phrase to accompany a toast. Its literal translation is Be healthy, and it is an equivalent of Heres to you, or To your good health, or a similar toast. It also provokes a discussion between the characters, switching from linguistic to philosophical, political, social, and goes on to become an inside joke of the characters and the audience alike, contributing something new to the meaning of that particular combination of words within both languages. Consider this:

SAND: Listen, Honoré. When Lithuanians sit down to drink—I don’t know what it is they’re drinking…

BALZAC: Something we wouldn’t like.

SAND: They raise their drinks, in whatever they’re poured into, and say: books wake us. And they drink. Imagine this, Margaret . . . Books wake us. We will be awakened in books.

BALZAC: This here, George, is your imagination.

SAND: It’s true. Frédéric’s Polish friends told me. What a nation! Drinking and wishing each other to be awakened in literature. Unbelievable. And you, Honoré, want to erase these differences.

CHOPIN: Is this true, Adam?

ADAM: One of the possibilities.

SAND (repeating with feeling): Books wake us…

ADAM: Būk means, in Lithuanian…

CHOPIN: Bóg is God in Polish.

BALZAC: This I can grasp. You drink and you insure yourself: if something happens, God will come to our aid. In this world or the next.[1]

The footnote in my translation contains a condensed version of these details. It’s not that the footnote is essential, per se – conveniently, the characters explain much of the commotion around the phrase by themselves, practically spelling out every word. Even if they didn’t, adding a footnote or not is the translator’s choice just as it is the reader’s choice whether to read it or not (in the spur of the moment, I added a footnote about footnotes, below).[2] But the whole thing was so specific and interesting, and contained such an entertaining cultural reference and was so brilliantly done that it simply deserved to be recorded in a mini backstory.

Afterwards, I saw the stage adaptation. And it’s absolutely stunning – as always, Tuminas combines the perfectly aesthetic and the manically energetic means to transport you into a powerful, romantic, visually striking world. So I loved it. But – neither immediately, nor later on, as I let the impressions sink in – did I change anything significant in the first translation draft I had done. The performance didn’t influence changes. I wasn’t drawn to do that and didn’t feel that it was necessary. The version of my translation is therefore my interpretation of Mistras. Not the Tuminas one or that of any other director.

The bit where Margaret Fuller stares at Adam Mickiewicz is a nice example:

ADAM (to MARGARET):  I was introduced to Goethe as his Polish counterpart. It piqued his interest.

MARGARET:  You?… A counterpart?…

ADAM:  This is how I was introduced…

MARGARET stares at ADAM intensely. Becoming pale, she tries to stand up. She faints.

SAND (catches MARGARET):  Water. Good Heavens, child, how will you write that introduction of yours… With this sensitivity to the material. She needs air…[3]

The way it was shown on stage struck me as dramatically, ostentatiously humorous. But the script, and the way I read the script, suggested that Margaret was simply awe-struck, in a rather unintentional, understated, endearing way that speaks of vulnerability and betrays her character (the way Ivaškevičius imagines it) as much as a detailed description. I didn’t opt to follow the dramatic effect as seen on the stage and adapt to it. Instead, I was working with the hints that the author had originally left and that every reader can re-interpret for themselves.

And again, there’s something intact – the essence of Ivaškevičius’ work remains the same whether it is the director’s version or mine. Also, whether it’s performed or read. Mistras makes it easyThe language feels so rich and immersive and flows so lightly you can hardly keep up, your eyes straying immediately to the next line.

In play scripts, the literary plane is inescapably connected with the performative aspect. But does it mean that the literary value is somehow diminished or less important? And Mistras undoubtedly has remarkable literary value.

The way Ivaškevičius writes is very distinct, immediately recognizable. It’s incredible how he combines snappy quickness of dialogue with this decorative, elegant language, rich with images, ideas, cultural references, historical facts. It contains so much, yet it balances everything with enviable grace and skill. It’s difficult to stop reading – one line follows the other, taking the reader into a firm grip. I honestly found it difficult to stop translating – even reaching a place where you should logically pause to think and take in the picture that’s built so far, the instinct is to go straight to the next line without pausing. You want to read whatever comes next, as quickly as possible – it’s as simple as that.

Not to mention the same skill with which he handles complex topics: identity, belonging, clashes between countries and cultures, present and past, faith and scepticism. Ivaškevičius is casual and entertaining and perfectly serious at the same time, and the dialogue brings up beautiful imagery: the style that transfers to his prose, such as Kam Vaikų (Who Needs Children), a collection of contemporary, brisk short stories, or a historical novel Žali (Green) that focuses on the Lithuanian resistance movement after WW2.

Dynamic action taking place against beautifully set scenes, a variety of charismatic voices, the past always lingering in the background, seeping into the present, facts blending into fantasy, and vice versa, and the comfortingly rich language. You can recognize these elements of his trademark style everywhere: reading his prose, seeing stage adaptations of his plays, and reading his plays.

Ivaškevičius’ versatility indicates another thing about reading theatre and the important function it performs. What reading theatre does is put us in a confrontation with the literary quality of the script, which might get overshadowed if not lost among all the immersive elements of a performance. On the page, the language is placed in plain sight, allowing us to fully take it in – all the subtle sentence structures, puns and the elegant flow of language, all the nuances that might otherwise get unnoticed, and that are worth noticing. Not only to appreciate them, but also to see the play from a different angle and direct our own versions of it. 

As ever, translation is a process of hyper-sensitive reading which makes us hyper-aware of these nuances. It is a way to get to know the author and their work and what they’re all about, even without seeing the stage versions. Reading and translating theatre – its actual play scripts – provides us with a priceless chance to be a part of this kind of discovery.


The background of writing this very piece is actually noteworthy in itself. While editing it for Hopscotch, I was not only putting the finishing touches to my translation of another piece of theatre into English (Princas ant Trečio Laipto – The Prince on the Third Step, an experimental play by Indrė Bručkutė, to be published later in 2021), but also had a chance to speak at a panel in Vilnius on 29 September, called Apie Dramaturgiją ir jos Vertimus (Playwriting and its Translations) along with writers Marius IvaškevičiusBirutė Kapustinskaitė, and Gabrielė Labanauskaitė, moderated by Vlada Kalpokaitė-Kručkauskienė, who specialises in theatre studies.

Discussion at the Lithuanian National Drama Theatre. Photo: Mindaugas Mikulėnas

Put splendidly together by SIRENOS International Theatre Festival and the Lithuanian Culture Institute, the event focused on the vulnerable aspect of theatre – the way that plays are at risk of fading from memory if they’re not put down in some sort of accessible textual form, and how translating them into other languages expands the way we think about both their performative and literary features. Against the picturesque background of the Lithuanian National Drama Theatre, our venue, we spent the evening talking about ways of approaching theatre translation for stage and for publication. It was an exceptional chance to put the ideas I dealt with in this essay to practice, exploring them, live, with others. 

Something all of us agreed on was the importance – the necessity, even – of arranging all sorts of activities around translating theatre. Showcases, readings, workshops, talks, online platforms, and publications are among the attractive and effective ways of pushing theatre translation forward, as well as finding new forms of collaboration. Involving the audience is just as important – the coverage of major media platforms that accompanied the panel[4] is a great start, increasing the visibility of the specific nature of this area and drawing attention to its issues, which are asking, persistently, to be addressed.

[1] Marius Ivaškevičius, Mistras (Tyto Alba, 2010), p. 23-24, translation and emphasis mine

[2] The thing about footnotes – having them or not having them, in translations and elsewhere – seems to be a never-ending dispute. My own requirements for them are minimal. I like footnotes as long as they’re on the same page. I get really unhappy when they’re all piled up at the end of the book. That is, I unhappily open the last pages and read the footnotes anyway, but I love it when I can look at them immediately, right there, without turning a page. I don’t remember ever skipping one. I get too curious. Footnotes offer extra information. They can turn everything around. They’re like little conspiratorial winks. They also open up creative possibilities that might not otherwise be available. A book I always wanted to read is See under Real, a fictional biography in Vladimir Nabokov’s Look at the Harlequins! (1974), where the truth is revealed in footnotes that become very, very long, while the body text remains a lie.

[3] Marius Ivaškevičius, Mistras (Tyto Alba, 2010), p. 27, translation mine

[4] See, for instance, this and this.

Kotryna Garanasvili is a writer, translator and interpreter working with English, Lithuanian, French, German, Russian and Georgian. She is currently a PhD Candidate and Associate Tutor at the University of East Anglia. Her research is supported by CHASE Arts and Humanities Research Council. She is the winner of the Emerging Translator Mentorship at the National Centre for Writing and has been awarded translation traineeships at the EU Council and European Parliament. More at

Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, October 12, 2021

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